Monica Lewinsky may have been the first person in history to experience international cyberbullying. Lewinsky was an intern in the White House during President Bill Clinton’s administration and her relationship with the U.S. president led to worldwide notoriety – contributing to the impeachment of the chief executive.
Lewinsky’s experiences took place before the dawn of social media, but her experience of being publicly judged and condemned was exacerbated by the then-new technology of the internet. Today, with almost every young person now on some form of social media platform, the potential for victimization or harassment exists everywhere.
The lessons of how decisions in early life can have long-lasting impacts – as well as considering how the #MeToo movement might invite a reconsideration of Lewinsky’s role in those events – are among the reasons Congregation Beth Israel will welcome Lewinsky to Vancouver for an evening that includes Selichot services Sept. 9.
“We were trying to think about someone who would be appropriate for Selichot, which is really the kickoff to the High Holiday season,” said Beth Israel’s Rabbi Jonathan Infeld. “We wanted someone who would be addressing key High Holiday concepts, such as personal renewal, dealing with personal choices made throughout one’s life, but especially at a young age, the effect of those choices on one’s life. Also, very à propos to today, someone who is still dealing with body image and life image, dealing with online harassment and dealing especially, again in the modern period, with gender power-related issues.”
Lewinsky has been speaking on these topics for several years. And this will not be her first time speaking about them to Vancouver audiences, as she did a TED Talk here in 2015, where she told the audience she was subjected to “global humiliation” by “mobs of virtual stone throwers.”
“In 1998, I lost my reputation and my dignity. I lost almost everything,” she said at the time. “I almost lost my life.”
Lewinsky’s presentation here is presented by RBC Global Assets Management PH&N Institutional in addition to Beth Israel, King David High School and Hillel.
Beth Israel invited King David and Hillel to participate because of the relevance to younger audiences of the issue of cyberbullying and how decisions and actions at a young age can change one’s life, said the rabbi. He noted that some younger people might not know of Lewinsky’s experience, while people his age recall it vividly.
Infeld dismissed the idea that Lewinsky’s visit might be controversial.
“Our goal is not to deal with the political issues,” he said. “Our goal is to deal with the personal growth and harassment and mental health issues. Obviously, everyone has their own view of the political issues involved, but the intention here is really not to deal with Democrats versus Republicans or anything like that but really to deal with how one’s experiences as a 20-something-year-old, and the decisions that a person makes at that point, can affect one’s life…. She speaks openly about suicide ideation at one point and how did she overcome that, how is she alive today, to be able to speak, and how does this affect our young people today, who are also making challenging decisions that affect their lives potentially forever, like we all did.”
Infeld also wonders how Lewinsky would have been portrayed, and how different the perceptions might have been, had the events taken place today, when the #MeToo movement and other social changes have given us a different perspective on workplace and gender power dynamics.
“Had this played out in the 2020s and not in the 1990s, what would the storyline look like?” he asked. “I think that may have changed in a very significant way – what the gender and power dynamic looks like in terms of how people would perceive who has responsibility for what took place.”
Tickets to the event were made available first to Beth Israel members, King David families and Hillel students. Tickets were opened to general audiences on Aug. 15. The 8:30 p.m. fireside chat between Infeld and Lewinsky is free and will be followed by musical Selichot services, led by Debby Fenson and Harley Rothstein. People who donate or pledge $90 or more to Beth Israel’s High Holidays campaign are invited to a 7 p.m. seudah shlishit dinner with Lewinsky. Selichot services will be livestreamed but Lewinsky’s presentation will not be. Information and tickets are available at bethisraelvan.ca.
Vancouver Talmud Torah students of all ages worked together to prepare the Vancouver Jewish Community Garden. (photo from VTT)
The first few weeks of spring have been a particularly busy time for Vancouver Talmud Torah (VTT) students. Armed with child-size wheelbarrows, shovels, rakes and plenty of enthusiasm, students spent last March preparing the soil for Vancouver Jewish Community Garden. VTT’s head of school, Emily Greenberg, said the formidable task of building up the garden, which will provide crops for a variety of food security initiatives in the community, has been a big hit with the kids.
“We had every single one of our students, including our littlest 3-year-olds, coming out to the garden and helping to move soil into the planter boxes,” Greenberg said, adding that it took about a week to fill all of the planters. “At the beginning of the week, I saw a mountain that was easily over seven feet tall of dirt and, by the end of the week, they had taken it down to the ground.”
Their work paved the way for two community days in early April, in which families from throughout Metro Vancouver turned out to help.
The Vancouver Jewish Community Garden is the brainchild of three Jewish agencies: VTT, Congregation Beth Israel (BI) and Jewish Family Services (JFS). Approximately 1,800 square feet of the 6,000-square-feet garden will be dedicated to growing food to support various BI and JFS initiatives. The property will also include an education centre, walking paths and seating areas.
BI’s Rabbi Jonathan Infeld said the synagogue has been looking for ways to grow food that could support its philanthropic programs, such as the Veggie Club, which cooks up fresh soup that’s distributed through JFS, and One Heart Dinner, which provides sit-down meals to community members experiencing homelessness or food insecurity. He said the new garden will not only supply BI’s programs with freshly grown food, but serve as an outdoor classroom for its Hebrew school and for expanding community education programs.
“We will be creating and using this opportunity for our Hebrew school students to literally learn [about] Judaism connected to the land while getting their hands dirty in the garden,” Infeld said.
According to the rabbi, the garden’s unique gift isn’t just that it can teach community members how to grow food. “This garden is truly about feeding hunger, whether we are talking about those who physically hungry or those who are spiritually and Jewishly hungry as well,” he said, noting Judaism attaches communal responsibility to the act of growing food, instructing Jews to dedicate parts of their crops to those in need, a commandment that dovetails with the garden’s very purpose.
“Judaism [also] commands us to say blessings before and after every time we eat, to recognize that we are given a gift of food from God. When we go to the supermarket and we buy our food and prepare it and make it, it’s easy to forget from where it came.”
The tasks involved in building and tending this garden, he explained, also serve to remind us that food doesn’t arrive easily. “It needs a lot of hard work, it needs our interaction and it needs divine intervention” in order to feed a family. “By being involved in the farming and producing and the growing of food, our community will be able to see in front of their eyes what the Jewish laws pertaining to eating are really all about,” Infeld said.
For JFS, it made sense to support a program that produces food for community sustainability initiatives and also serves as a classroom for youth education, said JFS chief executive officer Tanja Demajo.
“The garden is a very important part of the food justice and inclusion and community engagement [programs] that we are trying to build through the Kitchen and our food initiatives,” she said. “So, it really wasn’t hard for us to lend our support and voice. It was very meaningful, and what’s even more meaningful is this opportunity to build partnerships between VTT and BI. That’s quite unique and amazing.
“It is really neat to see how we can all think through different lenses of the ways to build a community; how to put education … and community engagement and food production together and create this accessible space for everyone to participate in.”
Greenberg said this may be the first project of its kind – several Jewish agencies with differing mandates partnering to create a community garden.
“That is something that we are really proud of and we hope it sets a standard for collaboration, because we are always stronger together, and we know that this is something that was only achievable because we were able to work together to accomplish it,” she said.
According to Greenberg, several founding donors played an important role in making the garden possible.
“The Diamond Foundation secured a long-term lease of this land for future development,” she said. “We would like to thank the Diamond Foundation for allowing us the opportunity to use this land for a Jewish community garden on a temporary basis.”
Greenberg said they are also grateful to the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, in partnership with the Jewish Community Foundation and the Ronald S. Roadburg Foundation, for their significant financial seed gifts.
With the planters filled and seeded, the garden is now well on its way. Community members spent April planting a cornucopia of flowering plants like black-eyed Susans, purple coneflowers, sweet peas and sunflowers. Fruit trees, including apple and plum, already had been planted, along with grapes, raspberries, strawberries, and lettuces.
“Once we begin having students regularly in the garden, we will be holding lessons for all students, from rishonim (3-year-olds) to Grade 7,” Greenberg said, noting that the new classroom melds well with the school’s iSTEAM (Israel innovation, science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) program. “The garden gives us an opportunity to dive deep into iSTEAM and look at, for example, drip irrigation,” an Israeli invention that the community garden will be using and which is now used globally. “It’s completely transformed the agricultural sector,” Greenberg said. “So, for kids to see how innovation has come out of Israel and is then being transplanted all over the world … [it is] a very meaningful way for them to engage in learning about Israel as well.”
Finding ways to build connections to Israel is also a priority for BI. “We are always looking for opportunities to meet our goals of bringing Jews closer to God, Torah and Israel,” Infeld said. Michelle Dodek has been hired to help teach the Hebrew school students about the ancient and enduring connection between Judaism and the land.
Demajo said work in the garden doesn’t stop now that the plants are in the ground. There will still be room for more volunteers to get their hands dirty and participate in its maintenance.
“There will be a place to engage, whether it is with growing food, whether it is with programs that are more social or it’s more related to education,” Demajo said. Individuals who didn’t have an opportunity to volunteer for the build-up of the garden can reach out to Maggie Wilson at [email protected] for more information and to register as a volunteer.
On May 28, 3-5 p.m., the garden, which is located adjacent to the synagogue, will open its doors to visitors for the first time. Organizers are asking those who would like to attend the open house and fundraiser to register using the link at talmudtorah.com/vjcg, so they have an idea of how many people will be attending.
Jan Lee is an award-winning editorial writer whose articles and op-eds have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism and Baltimore Jewish Times, as well as a number of business, environmental and travel publications. Her blog can be found at multiculturaljew.polestarpassages.com.
Rabbi Paul Plotkin returns to Congregation Beth Israel for the Canadian launch of his new book, Wisdom Grows in My Garden. (photo from AIA Publishing)
In part to fill his need to nurture – his kids off to college and his congregation less reliant on him – Rabbi Paul Plotkin took up gardening. Not only has he produced some of the most expensive tomatoes, taking into account all the capital that goes into every one that makes it into a salad or sandwich, but he has produced a new book: Wisdom Grows in My Garden (AIA Publishing). And he will launch that book in Canada on May 10, 7:30 p.m., at Beth Israel Synagogue, where he began his rabbinical career.
“I started in the summer of 1976 as Rabbi [Wilfred] Solomon’s first assistant, and he left for Israel after breaking his Yom Kippur fast on the way to the airport, and the 26-year-old ‘kid’ took over. Rabbi [Marvin] Hier was away from the Schara Tzedeck for most of the year preparing to build what was to become the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, so I was thrust into the position of often being the Vancouver non-Reform senior rabbi. It was quite a ride. It was a good thing I didn’t know what I couldn’t do, or I would have been paralyzed with fear. Instead, I jumped in and went to work.”
While BI was his first pulpit, Plotkin said, “I had been a youth director of my home synagogue while in college and in New York while at the seminary. I learned a lot about programming and leadership from those jobs and translated it into heading a synagogue.”
He admitted that the experience “was not without mistakes but what I couldn’t entirely appreciate was the menschlichkeit of my members. They appreciated my enthusiasm, my passion and my sincerity and pardoned most of my excesses and faults. It was a truly Canadian thing. I know now how special it was because my other two congregations in Florida were a lot different. Years later, I would share privately that my ‘worst critics’ in Vancouver treated me better than my good friends in Florida. By being thrown into the fire and succeeding – succeeding was a low bar, if the shul was still standing when Rabbi Solomon returned, I would have been praised – I learned of the potential people had for change, of their desire for knowledge, and that I could actually help transform people into greater commitment to mitzvot and the Jewish people.”
Plotkin was born and raised in Toronto, but has lived in South Florida for more than four decades. He is rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Am and served on the Rabbinical Assembly’s committee on Jewish law and standards for some 20 years. He is the founding chair of its kashrut subcommittee and also is in charge of kashrut for Ben’s Kosher restaurant chain. He loves food and cooking. And Canada still holds a special place for him – he and his wife own a townhouse in Whistler, “primarily as a new summer cottage for after retirement,” he said. “We will be there for four months this summer.”
An avid writer, publishing articles in various newspapers and magazines, Plotkin has a blog on medium.com. He published a book some 20 years ago – The Lord Is My Shepherd, Why Do I Still Want?: Ancient Wisdom for the Modern Soul (Eakin Press) – but waited until retirement to write his second.
“First, in those days, I had to triage my time and creative mental energy. I also needed more age and seasoning for all of the pieces to melt together. Pirkei Avot teaches us to see wisdom in the elderly. Great red wine isn’t great in its first year. It takes years to develop nuance and subtlety. Creation of the book was no different.”
The idea came to him in a dream, he said.
“Unfortunately, I was still in my active work years, with an 1,100-family congregation. Finding time to breathe was hard, let alone write a book, so I made it a priority in retirement. Over the years after the dream, new ideas would come to me in the garden and I would jot them down and throw them into a file with the dream material.”
In describing the book, Plotkin said, “Technically, it is a narrative memoir, because it is my story and told entirely from my perspective, but it is not in its heart a memoir. It revolves around the garden, but you won’t improve your tomato growing by reading the book. It is, in essence, a life lesson book (indeed, there are 25 life lessons in the book) that will help guide you to a better life. It is filled with humour and stories, two tools that featured prominently in 40 years of sermons. It will offer the reader some important guides to navigating a better life. I like to tell Jewishly knowledgeable audiences that the garden was my ‘Torah,’ my book is the Midrash.”
Plotkin said “gardening is a wonderful emotional and humbling pastime” and cited a recent article that “extolled its value as an alternative choice for exercising.”
“If you haven’t got time,” he said, “try a few herbs in a pot on the windowsill. If you have a black thumb, grow zucchini. In northern climates, everyone grows so many, they start to call friends they don’t have to offer them some. If you read the book, the irony of this last statement will become clear.”
Of the feedback he has received so far – from readers in his own demographic, as well as that of his mid-40s son, from Jews and non-Jews, from observant people and atheists – Plotkin said, “much to my shock, they all liked it and, yet, like a Rorschach test, they all found messages in my lessons that reflected their needs or interests. There is something in this book for everyone.”
Chapter 1 of Wisdom Grows in My Garden takes place at Beth Israel, said Plotkin. “I hope many readers and especially those who may remember me from their bar/bat mitzvahs and weddings that I officiated at will come out to the evening and say hello,” he said.
On March 9, community members gathered to bury sacred Jewish texts at Beth Israel Cemetery. (photo by Cynthia Ramsay)
According to Jewish law, no sacred texts and objects are allowed to be thrown out. This includes anything with God’s name printed on it. These texts and objects must be buried in a respectful way,” explained Rabbi Jonathan Infeld of Congregation Beth Israel in an email to the Jewish Independent about the March 9 Genizah Project ceremony at the synagogue’s cemetery. “Since a burial spot is not always convenient, people store their sacred material in a special place called a genizah until they can be buried.”
A few months ago, Infeld received a phone call from Eugene Barsky, a librarian at the University of British Columbia. Barsky was looking for a place to bury a considerable number of sacred books that were beyond repair. Infeld “immediately said yes.”
“But I wanted to do much more than just bury the materials,” the rabbi said. “I asked if he would be interested in a community-wide program, and Eugene also agreed. After that, we sought other interested parties including UBC Jewish studies, Hillel BC, King David High School, Peretz Centre and the Waldman Library.”
Representatives of these organizations were present on March 9, including students from KDHS and UBC. Infeld spoke about how sacred objects and texts not only give Jews a connection to our spiritual existence, but a social connection as well.
“And, no matter what differences we may have as a people, we are brought together within a rubric of study, of prayer, all connected to the written word,” he said. “For us, as a Jewish people, the book is sacred. For us, as a Jewish people, study is a sacred task, a sacred opportunity. And so, it only makes sense that, when we have studied, have brought a book to its conclusion, that’s literally falling apart, we don’t just throw it away, but the book, or the sacred object, has become our friend and become part of us. And so, according to Jewish tradition, we bury it.”
Barsky highlighted one of the many books being buried: a Pentateuch (the Five Books of Moses) published in Furth, Germany, in 1805. “I wish we could preserve these books, but some of them are molding,” he said. “We have a preservation lab at UBC but they reviewed them and some of them just could not be preserved.”
Barsky asked two members of the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir – Stephen Aberle and Aurel Matte – to sing a couple of songs. The pair led “Hinei Ma Tov,” about how pleasant it is when sisters, brothers, all of us, gather together; and “Al Sh’loshah Devarim,” about the three things on which the world stands (Torah, divine service, acts of love) and by which the world endures (truth, justice, peace).
For UBC student Ellie Sherman, the burial ceremony was particularly meaningful, “as someone who spends every day reading more and more information, paying close attention to authors and narrators, and focusing on crafting assignments with correct references, to give credit where credit is due.”
She said, “The need for the genizah recognizes that the significance of words is beyond two-dimensional figures on a page, that the lessons we learn and the knowledge we gain from our books can be infinite, just as the meaning behind the words.”
Gregg Gardner, associate professor and Diamond Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics at UBC, shared how the name genizah came about. “The ancient rabbis of the first centuries tell a story about a king,” he said. “The king’s name is Munbaz. This king travels to Jerusalem, where there is drought and a famine. To provide relief, Munbaz gives away his fortune to the needy. Munbaz bizbez, Munbaz spends. His brothers confront him and demand an explanation as to why he’s giving away the family fortune…. Munbaz says that he does not bizbez the fortune … but rather he ganaz the fortune, he stores it, he saves it…. Munbaz explains that, by giving your money to charity here on earth, you do not waste your money … you save it in the world to come, in the afterlife.
“The word genizah literally means ‘storing’ and, in doing so, it can denote hiding from view,” he said. “Ancient Jewish traditions going back to the first centuries, the Second Temple period, talk about hiding many things, even the holy vessels from the Jerusalem Temple, and there are traditions in which the word ganaz is associated with storing valuables.”
Gardner said, “We are here at a cemetery, essentially taking these books out of use, laying them to rest, and yet, at the same time, going back thousands of years, the genizah has been a story not only about death, but about Jewish life.”
Richard Menkis, associate professor of medieval and modern Jewish history at UBC, picked up on this last aspect. During the planning for the burial, he said, there was a feeling towards solemnity, even mourning. But, he said, “there was a whole other sensibility that we could be bringing to it.”
He spoke of the Jews of Algeria, who would place items wherever they could around the synagogue and “several weeks later, they would carry them, the books, the other objects, in sacks. They’d escort them to the cemetery and bury them and, on that day, there would be a feast and special hymns for the occasion. There were similar customs in the community in Morocco of Meknes.
“The Sephardic Jews of Jerusalem had a custom of placing sacred objects and texts in the walls of the synagogue and, every three to seven years, would … joyously take them from the synagogues to a special section in one of the cemeteries in Jerusalem.”
The joy would come, said Menkis, from knowing that “the respect and honour that they were giving to these items would bring down upon them a variety of divine segulot, a variety of blessings. For some, it might be, we can call down rain. For others, it might be to prevent a plague.”
Menkis said, “I embrace the Genizah Project as the moral opposite of a horrible feature of modern life – the book burning. While the book burning denigrates ideas and discussion, the genizah shows reverence for ideals and aspirations.”
Those gathered were reminded of this reverence by Rabbi Kylynn Cohen, senior Jewish educator of Hillel at UBC, who led the service by the gravesite. As in the burial of a human body, she said, it is up to us to do the carrying when a person – or, in this case, the books – cannot go forth themselves.
Everyone helped transport the books from the chapel to the gravesite. Maiya Letourneau, head librarian of the Waldman Library, held up a book with gold embossing, another with lace embroidery. She said, “When we’re thinking about the memories that books create and the importance that they have in our lives, as a librarian, it can be really, really hard to take a book out of the collection, but it’s part of maintaining a healthy library, it’s part of making sure the library is useful for years to come, and it’s just an important part of what we do.”
After those gathered recited the Kaddish d’Rabbanan, the prayer that is said whenever a minyan of Jews finishes studying, Rabbi Stephen Berger, head of Judaic studies at KDHS, spoke about the class he brought to the ceremony, which has been studying Malachi, the Book of Kings. “It’s not just that we study to know,” he said. “The studying itself, opening the book and learning the book is a religious act in Judaism. And that’s why we treat it so carefully and so succinctly and sanctify it…. All these acts [serve to remind us] this is who we are, and we should live up to the title of the People of the Book.”
BI Rabbi Adam Stein concluded the ceremony with Eitz Chayim Hi, which most congregations sing when putting the Torah scrolls back in the ark at the end of a Torah service. It describes the Torah as a tree of life.
Avi Benlolo will screen a film at Beth Israel on Feb. 13. (PR photo)
There is a fundamental disconnect between what is happening in the Middle East and what observers in Europe and North America perceive, according to Avi Benlolo, founder and chairman of the Abraham Global Peace Initiative. He aims to close that gap, and will be in Vancouver next month to bring his message – and a new documentary film – to West Coast audiences.
“Peace is unfolding in the Middle East,” Benlolo told the Independent. “The Abraham Accords have completely revolutionized Israel’s relationship with some of the neighbouring countries like the [United Arab Emirates], Bahrain, Morocco and so on. This new development hasn’t yet registered here in the West.”
On university campuses and in the social movements of Europe and North America, he said, the narrative remains mired in the decades-old conflict and tired rhetoric of “apartheid,” “colonization” and BDS, the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction the state of Israel.
“The truth of the matter is that that rhetoric isn’t rhetoric in the Middle East,” Benlolo said. “In the Middle East, BDS is nonexistent. You now have trade in the billions of dollars between Israel and its Arab neighbours, so clearly BDS has lost.”
The film that Benlolo produced and directed, The Future of Israel and its Defenders, approaches the issues through the lenses of experts, military strategists, entrepreneurial leaders, journalists and current and former political leaders.
“The message I’m trying to transmit,” he said, “is one really of hope for change.… If we are reinforcing that message that this is happening, that will help build on the peace process.”
A growing global realization of Mideast peace will also help reduce antisemitism and empower Jews, especially young people, everywhere, Benlolo hopes.
The film will be screened, and Benlolo will participate in a question-and-answer session, at Congregation Beth Israel Feb. 13, 7 p.m., in a celebration of Israel’s 75th birthday.
Benlolo founded the Abraham Global Peace Initiative after many years of working in the Jewish communal sector, including as chief executive officer of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies. AGPI became a registered charity in late 2021.
While there are many Jewish and Zionist organizations in Canada, Benlolo said his is unique.
“There is no voice for Canadian Jews internationally,” he said. “We are taking the Canadian voice global and working with the United Nations, working with the [European Union], working with multiple leaders around the world. Antisemitism and defamation of Israel is a transnational phenomenon. The swastika that you see painted on a school wall is not just localized, it’s being motivated globally.
“We are also saying, we as Canadians can stand up for ourselves,” Benlolo continued. “Canada itself is an incredible brand globally…. What AGPI is doing is optimizing the Canadian brand and we’re doing it very successfully. Every two minutes – I’m not exaggerating – there is a subscriber onto our website from somewhere on the planet, Italy, Brazil. Every two minutes. That’s because people love the Canadian brand, they love everything that we are saying, so we can be, as Canadians, an international voice with quite tremendous strength.”
While Benlolo is hoping that the Abraham Accords mute some of the condemnation Israel experiences on the world stage, defending Israel’s rights internationally may be entering a new phase, he said. The old tropes are being replaced with the phrase “Israel’s most right-wing government ever,” including in mainstream media sources.
“It’s a challenge, I’m not going to kid you,” said Benlolo. “The thing is, the media is never a fan of Israel, particularly here in Canada, outside of the National Post and maybe the Jewish [community] media. They are using any opportunity to grab hold and to make Israel look bad. They love it.”
The characterization of Israel’s new government clouds the reality, he argued. Israelis who voted for right-wing parties did so mainly on security grounds, he said, because they are deeply concerned about terrorism.
“That has driven them to move to the right,” he said, adding that Israeli society in general “is fairly secular, is not right-wing and is very pro-human rights.” He noted that the new Knesset features the country’s first openly gay speaker.
“Just because you’ve got this government right now that’s made up of a coalition doesn’t mean that it represents Israeli society and it doesn’t mean that it’s everybody in Israel that believes in this. That needs to be articulated as well,” said Benlolo. “Finally, we’re going to put pressure to bear as a Jewish community and friends of Israel, we’re going to continue to pressure Israel to make sure that it stays the course and stays true to tikkun olam.”
More details, and tickets for the event, which is presented by Beth Israel and the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, are available at bethisrael.ca.
Holocaust survivors participate in the candlelighting ceremony at the community’s Kristallnacht commemoration Nov. 9. (photo by Al Szajman)
Commemorating the Holocaust and the sad succession of genocides that have been perpetrated since is a sacred responsibility – but it is not enough, says Liliane Pari Umuhoza. That memory must be the motivation that drives people to make a better world, she said.
Umuhoza was 2 years old when her father and a million others were murdered during the Genocide Against the Tutsis of Rwanda, in 1994. After experiencing trauma in her adolescence due to that familial and communal history, Umuhoza has devoted her life to commemorating and educating about the genocide and encouraging people to dedicate themselves to healing their societies.
“When we remember, we help ensure that the memories and legacies of the victims and survivors continue to resonate for future generations,” she said at Vancouver’s community Kristallnacht commemoration Nov. 9. “When we remember, we learn about the history and create awareness. But that’s not enough. What matters the most is how we use that history to create a better world.”
The annual event took place at Beth Israel synagogue on the 84th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” on Nov. 9-10, 1938, which is the moment when anti-Jewish regulations and systemic discrimination turned into overt violence and murder. It is seen by many historians as the effective beginning of the Holocaust.
The event was presented by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (VHEC), in partnership with Congregation Beth Israel and with support from the Robert and Marilyn Krell Endowment Fund of the VHEC and from the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver annual campaign.
Umuhoza arrived in Vancouver several months ago to attend the University of British Columbia, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and global affairs. She is founder of the Women Genocide Survivors Retreat and is project officer for Foundation Rwanda, which provides funding for education to those who were born from rape during the genocide.
She began by outlining her own family’s history.
“I was 2 years old in the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda,” she said. “During this tragedy, my father was killed. Some of my uncles, aunties, cousins and many other members of my extended family are among the million Tutsi who were killed by the Hutu extremists in 100 days.
“One million people were killed in 100 days,” she stressed. “I was lucky to survive with my mother, who managed to escape to a neighbouring country, Congo, holding me, a 2-year-old baby, where we lived as refugees until it was safe enough for us to go back to Rwanda.”
She considers herself fortunate in comparison with many of her peers.
“I now have a stepfather and stepsiblings and I cannot tell you how blessed I feel because most of my friends from home grew up without a father or a mother figure in their lives,” she said.
Umuhoza was too young to understand what was happening at the time, she said. “But I grew up facing the consequences of that tragedy in every corner of my life. As many of you may know, psychologically, young children between the age of 0 and 5 are the most vulnerable to the effects of trauma since their brains are in the early development stage. For most people who have been exposed to genocide or war as children, the trauma can become severe at the adolescent stage and adulthood, if it is not properly treated.”
At the age of 12, Umuhoza began to exhibit symptoms of trauma, including depression, post-traumatic stress, nightmares, frustration, anger and confusion. She used the strength of others as an example to recover, including a friend who had to take on the parent role from childhood after she and her younger siblings were orphaned. Umuhoza is now deeply immersed in often deeply difficult aspects of education, such as translating the narratives of other survivors through Foundation Rwanda.
“My role with this organization was to listen to the stories of these women in their Rwandan mother language and translate the stories in English so we could use those stories to create awareness and educate the world about the genocide and its ongoing consequences,” she said. “I found myself in a series of stories I’d never heard before … stories of mass murder, stories of pain, stories of rape.”
One of the lessons she learned from the genocide is to never tolerate injustice, no matter how big or small, Umuhoza said.
“Speak up and raise your voice when you see or hear people denying that the Holocaust happened,” she said. “Speak up when you hear people saying that the genocide did not happen. Speak up when you see minorities being unfairly treated. Speak up when you see women in Tehran being oppressed. Let’s dare to step out of our common comfort zone and cultivate empathy to people around us.”
She concluded: “Individually, we can change our communities. But together we can change the world.”
Earlier in the evening, Prof. Chris Friedrichs contextualized the history of the Holocaust, emphasizing the importance of synagogues as a place of refuge for Jewish communities. The Kristallnacht commemoration has been taking place in the sanctuary of Beth Israel for more than 40 years, he said.
There were more than 1,000 synagogues in Germany at the time of Kristallnacht, he noted, some many centuries old, while others were newer, having been dedicated in the presence of senior German officials, clergy and others, a testament to the apparent solidity of the Jewish community’s place in the country.
“But then, beginning in 1933, everything started to change,” said Friedrichs, professor emeritus of history at UBC. “Once the Nazis came to power, Germans were taught to shun their Jewish neighbours. Jews were banned from public places. They could no longer go to the theatre or walk in the park or send their children to public schools. But one place was still open to them – their own synagogues, where they could gather to worship or study or simply spend time with their fellow Jews. And so it was until Nov. 9, 1938, when, in one carefully orchestrated nationwide night of terror, hundreds of synagogues all over Germany were set aflame, thousands of Jews were arrested, over 100 were killed. The next morning, Jews found their synagogues turned into empty shells and the windows of their shops shattered into broken shards of glass and the contents plundered. No Jew in Germany ever forgot that night of broken glass, Kristallnacht.”
Irwin Cotler, Canada’s special envoy on preserving Holocaust remembrance and combatting antisemitism, spoke via video link to the audience.
Of the Holocaust, he said, “It was a continuation and manifestation of history’s oldest, longest, most enduring and most toxic of hatreds, antisemitism, a hatred that mutates and metastasizes over time, which is grounded in one generic, historical, foundational, conspiratorial trope of the Jews – the Jewish people, the Jewish state – as the enemy of all that is good and the embodiment of all that is evil, which led, therefore, to the demonization and dehumanization of the Jew as prologue and justification for Kristallnacht and the Holocaust.”
A parallel between the Holocaust and the genocide against the Tutsis, he said, is that they were preventable.
“Nobody could say we did not know,” said Cotler. “We knew, but we did not act.”
Corinne Zimmerman, president of the VHEC, opened the event. Nina Kreiger, executive director, introduced the speakers and acknowledged dignitaries in attendance.
Beth Israel’s Rabbi Jonathan Infeld, a child of Holocaust survivors, thanked Umuhoza and reflected on her words and those of other speakers. He understands the idea of trauma being passed down through generations, he said. Reflecting on Friedrichs’ discussion of the centrality of the synagogue in Jewish life, Infeld said his spiritual leadership of the congregation during the construction of the new synagogue building was a form of response to the history of his family and the Jewish people.
Elected officials also spoke at the ceremony. Taleeb Noormohamad, member of Parliament for Vancouver Granville, spoke of his first trip to Berlin, where he walked around the streets of the old Jewish district.
“As somebody who had never really seen firsthand until that trip the horrors of what had happened to the Jewish community and to so many others,” said Noormohamad, “in that moment you come to realize the absolute inexplicable horror that was cast upon people and what it does to people, to communities, to families and to the histories of people.”
He committed to standing with the Jewish community against discrimination and noted the diversity of the audience, which included himself, a Muslim Canadian; Michael Lee, a Chinese-Canadian member of the legislature; and Ken Sim, a Chinese-Canadian mayor.
Parm Bains, member of Parliament for Steveston-Richmond East, was also present, as was Marc Eichhorn, consul general of Germany in Vancouver.
“Antisemitism is not a problem, a fight, that is for the Jewish community alone,” Noormohamad said. “When you look in this room today, we are all in this together. This is our community. You are our family and the remembrance of what happened is our responsibility as much as it is yours.”
The Kristallnacht commemoration was the first official community event for Sim, who was sworn in as mayor of Vancouver three days before. He, too, spoke of visiting Germany, along with his wife and their four sons, where they witnessed the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and pondered the Stolpersteine, the “stumbling stones” that have been installed to mark the places where victims of Nazi extermination or persecution lived. The family, he said, has also visited Auschwitz, in Poland, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C.
During the recent election campaign, Sim promised that, as mayor, he would promote the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism, which the previous council failed to do. He repeated his commitment at the ceremony, and council passed the motion on Nov. 16. (Click here and here for stories.)
Sim was joined at the event by Vancouver Councilor Sarah Kirby-Yung, who Sim credited as a stalwart ally of the Jewish community. Together, they read the official proclamation from the City of Vancouver.
“Out of the shards of destruction, in this case the glass on the night of Kristallnacht, often are born the glimmers of hope,” said Kirby-Yung, “and I think that is what keeps all of us going. It is the resilience and faith and the hope of the Jewish community that I think embodies the spirit of what we aspire to deliver here in the city of Vancouver.”
Tikva Housing Society is thrilled to share that the Ronald S. Roadburg Foundation has provided a grant of $255,000 to support Tikva’s mission to offer affordable housing solutions to the Jewish community.
“A gift of this magnitude provides help and hope at a time when economic uncertainty is definitely impacting housing insecurity,” said Anat Gogo, executive director of Tikva Housing Society. “The Ronald S. Roadburg Foundation’s tremendous generosity means that we will have the financial resources to build capacity on an operational level. Tikva is on an unprecedented growth trajectory and this gift is critical to support our growing housing portfolio, allowing us to say ‘yes’ to a number of new opportunities on the horizon.”
The need for affordable housing continues to be first and foremost on the minds of many in the Jewish community. This gift will be put to work, empowering individuals and families by providing affordable housing – allowing them to build long-term change in their lives and beyond.
Tikva Housing Society is grateful to the Ronald S. Roadburg Foundation for its partnership in addressing the issue of housing insecurity. Tikva appreciates the foundation’s focus on strengthening the capacity of the community’s organizations and its commitment to tikkun olam, repairing the world.
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Vancouver Talmud Torah, Congregation Beth Israel and Jewish Family Services are elated to share with the community that a gift of $100,000 has been received from the Ronald S. Roadburg Foundation to support the Vancouver Jewish Community Garden. This gift enables the building of the garden to begin in earnest and it is anticipated that construction will begin this fall. Thanks to the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s Transformation Grant and the Diamond Foundation, the garden will be located and built above the shared BI and VTT parkade.
The garden aspires to positively impact many members of the local Jewish community and to be a hub for celebrating and honouring nature, imparting Jewish teachings and values, promoting collaboration, and enhancing the community’s well-being. Studies show that spending time outdoors in nature has been directly linked with lessened anxiety and depression for adults and children alike and helps people better manage stress.
“It is exciting and encouraging to see several important communal institutions come together collaboratively to advance such a positive new opportunity. The Vancouver Jewish Community Garden will be an opportunity to teach community members of all ages about agriculture and the importance of a healthy earth, to enable volunteers to contribute to our community and to help feed those in need. The Ronald S. Roadburg Foundation is pleased to help advance the project towards completion,” noted Bernard Pinsky, Roadburg board chair.
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Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver is delighted to welcome two new members of its team: Gayle Morris and Alisa Farina.
Morris is the new director of the Federation annual campaign, the community’s central fundraising initiative. Building relationships is central to this role, and Morris brings an incredible depth of experience in that area, and so much more. She is an accomplished and multifaceted sales, marketing and business development leader who has extensive experience in both innovative startups and not-for-profit organizations. She is also an active member of the community with extensive volunteer involvement.
Farina has been hired as the child, youth and young adult mental health worker, and Federation is grateful to the Mel and Gerri Davis Charitable Trust for the support to enable the creation of the new position.
Farina holds a bachelor’s in child and youth care and comes to the job from a 25-year career with the Burnaby School District, the last 10 of which she focused on working with high-risk, vulnerable youth and their families. Farina is currently completing her master’s degree in clinical counseling. She grew up in the Lower Mainland and was involved with BBYO and Camp Miriam.
Gaynor Levin is retiring from Congregation Beth Israel after 25 years. (photo from Gaynor Levin)
After 25 years of contributing to the communal fabric of Congregation Beth Israel, Gaynor Levin is retiring. Anyone who has had the pleasure to interact with Levin – who has worked in many different capacities at the shul – knows that she prides herself on making sure that every detail under her sphere of influence is taken care of perfectly, with a smile every time.
Levin arrived in Canada from South Africa in 1991, with Vancouver as the goal but settling in Calgary initially. She had been a teacher at a Jewish day school in Cape Town for six years and took a job at the Calgary Jewish Community Centre.
“We came from summer in Cape Town and arrived in mid-December. It was -20 in Calgary,” she said with a laugh and a little shiver.
After 11 months, Levin and her husband, Ivor, made the move to Vancouver, where they have been ever since. Her career in the Jewish community continued, as the mother of two began work at Beth Israel as a Hebrew school teacher in 1997.
After a couple of years, looking for a new challenge, she took on the half-time position of program coordinator. “It was always a team effort,” she told the Jewish Independent. “I organized big family events and adult education programs.”
As the synagogue calendar grew, new positions were added to early childhood programming and Levin worked collaboratively with volunteers and shul employees to expand the services Beth Israel provided.
By 2014, the synagogue building had been completely redeveloped.
“The shul needed a rental manager and a manager of member relations,” Levin said. “I describe this job as customer service…. I am responsible for all of the happy events.”
With the exception of funerals, she became responsible for scheduling and helping organize all lifecycle and other gatherings. She explained that the member relations part of her job dovetailed nicely with the events part because it’s often around simchahs that families think of joining a synagogue. She also took on the responsibility for the rabbi’s calendar and for booking the Schara Tzedeck mikvah when necessary for conversions.
Working at the synagogue, Levin has seen many changes over the years. For example, recently, there have been a number of conversions for same-sex couples who have adopted, or who have had a baby by surrogate, and want to convert their new infant child to Judaism.
Outside of the religious domain, Levin’s job entailed renting out the synagogue’s various spaces to different groups. Jewish organizations such as King David High School and the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver have used the BI ballroom over the years for large events, as have many other organizations. For example, this past May, B.C. Children’s Hospital Foundation held their Balding for Dollars fundraiser at the synagogue. Ballroom dancing, rhythmic gymnastics, Girl Guides meetings and Weight Watchers gatherings were all regularly scheduled rentals under Levin’s tenure. There were also the occasional brushes with celebrity when TV shows were filmed on the premises.
“Whenever new people looking to host an event would walk into the shul, they would always be amazed. When they see it from the outside, nobody thinks it will look like this inside,” Levin explained. “It’s the best kept secret in the city. Central location, parking, a choice of many beautiful rooms.…”
While still clearly engaged with her job and the synagogue, Levin said 25 years is a good chunk of time in one place and she’s happy to leave now, feeling great about what she’s accomplished. She said she looks forward to attending events and services without the responsibility she’s had for years. “I love BI – it’s a second home to me and always will be,” she said, smiling.
Levin said her work with the membership in particular was personally rewarding and she enjoyed being “the face people knew when they joined the shul or needed help with an event.” She laughed when she said she never wants to give up buying the flowers for Yontif or gifts for guests of the shul because that was a favourite part of her job.
“I loved the people I worked with. It felt like a family – from the custodial staff to the president of the board,” she said.
Anyone looking to book the BI for an event can still catch Levin until the end of June. After that, she’ll be continuing her volunteer work in many Jewish organizations around the city – and watch out for her if on the Grouse Grind, as she’s climbing it at least three times a week.
Michelle Dodekis a freelance writer living in Vancouver.
The new Beth Israel building welcomes people from 28th Avenue, while the original building (below) had its entrance on Oak Street. (photos from Beth Israel)
Congregation Beth Israel celebrates its 90th anniversary with a gala on June 12. It will feature “a walk down memory lane through each of the past nine decades,” as well as music, cocktails, dinner and other activities.
While the congregation’s history began in the 1920s, it wasn’t formally established until 1932. In a feature article in The Scribe (2008), community historian Cyril Leonoff, z”l, quotes an Oct. 9, 1931, editorial in the Jewish Western Bulletin, the predecessor of the Jewish Independent. A meeting had been held at the Jewish Community Centre, which was at Oak Street and 11th Avenue in those years, to discuss the possibility of a new congregation. The editorial commented:
“There can be no doubt in the minds of anyone that there is a distinct need for a Conservative or semi-Reform congregation in Vancouver. There are hundreds of Jews and Jewesses and their children who are so far removed by environment and training from the strictly Orthodox service that they have no inclination or desire to attend the synagogue now in existence here. The absence of [such a] synagogue carrying the services at least partly in English, has created a void in the religious life of many of our Jewish people…. The consensus of opinion in the community is … that a new congregation will be welcomed.”
The Jewish Community Centre was considered the best location initially, as the synagogue’s founding was during the Great Depression. Leonoff again cites that Oct. 9, 1931, editorial: “That the Community Centre, situated, as it is, convenient to all residential districts, would be the ideal place in which to set up the new congregation until such time as there are sufficient funds available for the erection of a separate building.”
It wasn’t until the end of the Second World War that the land along Oak Street between 27th and 28th avenues – where the synagogue still stands – was bought. As Beth Israel’s website notes, “by the late 1940s, both a rabbi (David Kogan) and a building site – at 27th and Oak – became available and, in 1949, Beth Israel’s synagogue was dedicated.”
The congregation grew over the years and, for three of those first several decades, the synagogue was led by Rabbi Wilfred and Rebbetzin Phyllis Solomon, Cantor Murray Nixon, z”l, and Ba’al Tefillah, Torah reader and teacher David Rubin z”l.
Programs increased, as did the participation of women, beyond a bat mitzvah ceremony. According to the BI website, “In the late 1980s, it became clear that women, now well-educated in Jewish ritual and study, were ready to move up to the bimah and take their place as full participants in synagogue ritual. By 1989, women were called to the Torah for their own aliyot, were counted in the minyan and acted as sh’lichat tzibbur (prayer leader). Beth Israel was the first major Canadian Conservative congregation to become fully egalitarian.”
The synagogue’s current senior spiritual leader, Rabbi Jonathan Infeld, and his wife Lissa Weinberger came to Beth Israel in 2006 via Ohev Shalom Synagogue in Marlboro, N.J. He told the Independent at the time: “We are very excited about moving to Vancouver, taking on an exciting challenge and being part of this community. I didn’t really know much about Beth Israel when we visited Vancouver, but after doing some research, I realized what a wonderful synagogue with a rich history it was.”
“It has been a pleasure working with Beth Israel as its rabbi for almost 17 years,” Infeld told the JI last week. “I remember the first day I walked into the synagogue. The congregants were wonderful. They were kind and welcoming. But the building was dated and literally falling apart. Everyone knew that we needed a new space for our spiritual home. After a few years, we were able to build an incredible and beautiful new synagogue that will last us for generations. We built a synagogue building for a new millennium…. Beth Israel has always been at the heart of the Vancouver’s Jewish community. I am proud to be part of that. I am sure that the spirit of Beth Israel will be strong for at least another 90 years. I look forward to helping to nurture it for many years to come.”
Construction on the current building began in 2012 and it was dedicated in September two years later. Along with Infeld, Beth Israel is currently led by Rabbi Adam Stein, Ba’alat Tefillah Debby Fenson and youth director Rabbi David Bluman.
“According to Mishna Pirkei Avot,” said Infeld, “a person is strong at the age of 80 and bent over at the age of 90. Beth Israel certainly has shown that 90 is the new 80. We are stronger than we have ever been. We are a synagogue built on the shoulders of giants. Many great women and men have dedicated their time, sweat and tears into building Beth Israel to be the synagogue that we are today. We greatly appreciate that. We could not be where we are today if it were not for them. And we greatly appreciate all of the people who continue to support us so that we can continue to grow and serve the Vancouver Jewish community. Ninety years is a big milestone in the life of synagogue. We really look forward to celebrating our 100th anniversary in 10 years.”
The 90th anniversary gala chair is Dale Porte and committee members are Howard Blank, Alexis Doctor, Jean Gerber, Myrna Koffman, Debby Koffman, Alan Kwinter, Debbie Setton, Leatt Vinegar and David Woogman. To purchase tickets to the June 12 celebration, call the synagogue office at 604-731-4161 or visit bethisrael.ca.
“I am particularly interested in the way that Torah can help us look inward. Each of the topics is about religious character formation, various ways in which we create a more godly character and personality,” said Rabbi Eliezer Diamond in a Zoom conversation with the Jewish Independent ahead of his visit to Vancouver next month.
Congregation Beth Israel will be hosting Diamond as its scholar-in-residence for three in-person talks under the collective title Making a Life of Meaning. A professor of Talmud and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, in New York, Diamond will speak on Addiction and Judaism (April 28, 7:30 p.m.), the Power of Gratitude (April 29, 6 p.m., with a dinner to follow) and Seeking and Granting Forgiveness (April 30, 9:30 a.m.).
In regard to addiction, the rabbi compares the 12-step process of Alcoholics Anonymous with the laws of repentance by Maimonides and notes the parallel paths taken towards sobriety and repentance: acknowledgement, regret and acceptance.
“Not drinking and being sober are not the same thing. To recover from alcoholism, one has to change one’s way of living and thinking,” said Diamond, who discusses addiction from both a personal and professional perspective.
“I am a recovering alcoholic and I know about addiction from the inside,” he said. “Even though I am not a therapist or addiction counselor, what I can do is help people to be honest with themselves and say ‘I have a problem,’ which is an acknowledgement of the sin and a step towards repentance. It is important to help people see where they are at so that they can begin to make changes.”
It is also helpful, he added, for his rabbinical students to know that their teacher is a recovering alcoholic because there is frequently a shame involved in addiction and a sense that one is a diminished person as a result.
“I am there to say to them, those may be the cards one has been dealt. You can still be a productive human being and, if you take the steps you need to take to deal with addiction, there is no reason for shame. On the contrary, there is a reason for pride. You have been faced with a challenge and you have addressed it,” he said.
Diamond pointed out that, in a broad sense, there has been an acknowledgement in the past couple of decades within the Jewish community that Jews, like everyone else, have problems with addiction.
“We are not immune to addiction, as people think or would like to think,” he said. “In my own lifetime, the community has become more open. The founding of Jewish Addiction Community Services [JACS] is an example of that.”
In addition to Congregation Beth Israel, Diamond’s talks in Vancouver are being sponsored by JACS Vancouver, Jewish Family Services Vancouver and Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver.
Diamond’s discussion on gratitude is tied to the teachings of Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, an early 20th-century leader in the mussar (Jewish ethics or values) movement, who saw giving as being at the heart of the religious personality. In Dessler’s teachings, God, by providing life, is the ultimate giver. Therefore, to follow in God’s path, we must be givers ourselves. There are times, however, when we must also be receivers, and the best way to receive is through gratitude, Diamond explained.
Expanding on the theme of gratitude, Diamond added, “Ultimately, whether or not we experience ourselves as wealthy or poor is intimately connected to finding happiness and satisfaction with what we have. If we focus on what we have and the happiness that it can bring us, then we can feel wealthy. This is a choice that all of us, especially in a first-world situation, have.”
On forgiveness, the rabbi cited Christian theologian C.S. Lewis, who spoke of the human desire to seek forgiveness yet the difficulty humans have in granting it.
“Forgiving is a hard thing to do,” said Diamond. “What does it actually mean to forgive someone? Because, unless we lobotomize ourselves, we are not going to forget what happened. The essence of what I will be talking about is the relationship between forgiveness and recognizing the essential humanity of every human being, including those who have wronged us.”
What often stands in the way of forgiveness, he said, is the inability to view another person as anything other than evil, and not as a flawed individual who has stumbled, as we all stumble. The path towards forgiveness, according to Diamond, is to make that distinction.
Amid social and political divisiveness, which causes rifts in families and communities, Diamond further emphasized the importance of being able to listen to and appreciate the inherent humanity and sincerity in belief of those with whom we may strongly disagree.
“Rabbi Diamond is one of most well-respected scholars in the Conservative movement today,” said Beth Israel’s Rabbi Jonathan Infeld. “He is exceedingly bright, knowledgeable and eloquent. He is also passionate about the human value of gratitude and the importance of recovery. Considering the fact that drug and alcohol addictions and overdoses have been less spoken about during the pandemic, we knew that Rabbi Diamond should be our first in-person scholar-in-residence since the beginning of COVID-19. We are so happy that other community agencies are joining us. We look forward to welcoming Rabbi Diamond to Vancouver and learning from this incredible rabbi.”